Category Archives: Volunteers

Making Volunteering a Tradition

There are a number of garden volunteers that have been involved pretty much since the garden restoration project began. Many of these volunteers come to the island twice a week to help out, and have adopted gardens to tend. There is another set of volunteers, also involved pretty much right from the beginning, but only make the trip once or twice a year to the island. It’s not because they don’t love the work, but because they live across the country.

Over the holidays, people return to the Bay Area to visit friends or family and have also made volunteering on Alcatraz their own tradition.

Garden volunteer, Dan Klein is one of them. For the past 8 years, Dan looks forward to coming to the island, checking in with anticipation a month ahead to make sure the volunteer days have not changed. From Ithaca, New York, Dan first heard about the Gardens of Alcatraz through volunteering with the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days programs, a national program that enables visitors into privately owned gardens.

Dan remembers his first volunteer trip in 2005 – it was the day when the 300’ trough planter was being planted. This planting project was literally the first planting on the island in over 40 years. Dan recalls “feeling very lucky” to have been there that day. His timing for the second trip was pretty lucky too – he picked the second anniversary of the project when all the volunteers were taken on a behind the scenes tour into the dungeon!

Coming from the East Coast during the middle of winter, California is a gardener’s getaway. The succulent slope on the west side is his favorite, as he can’t grow most of the plants in Ithaca. There are also plenty of other plants in flower now whereas at home everything is covered with snow. Soaking up the sunshine as we hacked away at the overgrowth on the west lawn (our project for this winter) Dan described the gardens as “not just background landscape, it’s a stop and look at me” type of landscape.


The 'stop and look at me' landscape in the Prisoner Gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The ‘stop and look at my’ landscape in the Prisoner Gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

We are pretty lucky to have Dan working with us too. Not only is he a volunteer willing to travel but he comes with a background in horticulture. Dan manages the Beautification Program for Ithaca and also works with volunteers himself. To some, to go on vacation only to work (especially at your own trade) may seem a little bizarre. Aside from Alcatraz being super cool and something he brags to his friends about, Dan has some other reasons for volunteering.

Dan tackles the overgrowth on his annual visit to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dan tackles the overgrowth on his annual visit to Alcatraz. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

As part of his own job, he works with and coordinates volunteers; so by being a part of our project he sees what it is like to be a volunteer himself. Dan is impressed with the Alcatraz volunteers, and catches up with the ones he has made friends with. Dick Miner, our own Worm Man of Alcatraz, stands out. Every single time Dan has stopped in, Dick has been there. Dick is a role model volunteer who has immersed himself in the project.

We hope Dan times his next trip with our big 10 year anniversary coming up this October!

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The Numbers Have been Tallied

The volunteer hours from 2012 have been and the results are very impressive!


Over the course of the year, from the drop-in volunteer days we had an 118 volunteers show up to garden, and these gardeners contributed 5357.75 hours. The total from the group work days came to 1172 hours, the result of 530 people from  42 different work parties.


Together, the final year total is 6529.75! This brings our year to date total to 43065 hours. Certainly, an amazing achievement  that we are very proud of. As we begin our 10th year of gardening on the Rock, we will easily surpass the 50000 mark in volunteer hours by the end of the year.


Thank you to all the volunteers for another productive year in the gardens!


 Alpha Pi Omega

Alpha Pi Omega

Alpha Pi Omega


 Americorps Alumni

 Atlas Obscura Society 

 Bay Area Whaleboater Rowing Association

 Black Rock


 Castlight Health, Inc

 Cresswell High School

 Cub Scout Den 11

 Environmental Protection Agency


Thank you FedEx!

Thank you FedEx!


 Goldman Sachs


 High Five Marketing

 Hillsborough Garden Club

 InterContinental Hotels of San Francisco

 KP Internet Services

 Lick Wilmerding High School

Thank you BuildOn!

Thank you BuildOn!


 LivePerson, Inc.

 Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service

 Method Products

 National Park Service John Muir House volunteers

 Nixon Peabody


Thank you PG&E!

Thank you PG&E!



 Stuart Hall Boy’s  School

 US. Marines

 Ygnacio Valley Teen Garden Corps

 Youth Conservation Corps




Thank you REI!

Thank you REI!

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Calling in the Marines

Once again, San Francisco amazed visitors from around the country and the world this past weekend with a plethora of activities going on throughout the city. Fleet Week, America’s Cup races and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival were just a few of the events that were on offer.

With so many activities for visitors

With the city for a backdrop, it was a beautiful day to work in the gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

to choose from, it was a special opportunity to have the United States Marine Corps and Navy personnel volunteer throughout the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.  Many of the personnel were on ships coming from Los Angeles, and for many, this was a first time visit to San Francisco.

A group of Marines joined the garden volunteers to clear overgrowth from a series of terraces. We had been saving this ‘once a year’ project for a tough volunteer group and who could work harder than the Marines? After a quick lesson on how to work safely on the historic terraces built by inmates in the 1940s, and shown the difference in the types of plants that we were cutting back, the Marines set to work.

Clearing out the vegetation on the historic terraces. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

In no time at all, the terraces were cleared and we made several trips to our compost pile, which is now a compost mountain.

The volunteer coordinators from the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy were instrumental in organizing the activities. For the second year in a row, Marines and Navy have volunteered throughout the park. This year, there were 154 personnel volunteering at 5 park sites. Together, they contributed 462 hours, or the equivalent of 3 months of work for one full time staff!

Everyone pitched right in to help. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Thank you to all of the volunteers who helped in the gardens, we hope to see you back next year!

Fast progress was made in clearing the terraces. Photo by Shelagh Fritz



It’s not every day you get to work alongside the Marines! Photo by Shelagh Fritz

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The Gardens of Alcatraz Logo

The garden volunteers are easy to spot on the island with our maroon colored t-shirts and sweatshirts. Proudly worn, our dark maroon uniform with the purple iris cannot be purchased but must be earned by volunteering five times in the gardens. Another source of pride is how faded the t-shirts become –the more faded the clothing becomes indicates a longer tenure, even the holes caused by names tags is something volunteers point out to each other.


 But how did our t-shirt come to be? Why was an iris chosen to represent the volunteer gardeners and the restoration work?


I spoke with Bill Prochnow and Vivian Young, graphic designers for the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy to learn more.


The logo was developed in 2004 after Alcatraz poster by Michael Schwabbthe restoration project began in November 2003. In keeping with the existing park logos created by Michael Schwab, the iris graphic was designed to be fairly simple with bold colors and a strong black border. The Douglas iris drawing had already been designed by Vivian in 2004 for another project within the park, but had not been used. With iris being one of the survivor plants on the island, the decision to use the iris to represent Alcatraz was logical. Coincidentally, Douglas iris had been planted on the island by a group of BoyScouts in the early years of the island becoming a National Park, but had perished over the years. Amazing, a new clump of Douglas iris found its way to the island along the Main roadway and has flowered for the past two years.

The Gardens of Alcatraz volunteer t-shirt.Superimposing the iris image on the outline of the island’s silhouette tailored the graphic to represent the gardens. Reading into the images, the creation of the final graphic is perfect for the Gardens of Alcatraz – the harsh prison is softened by using yellow and the iris (the plants) dominate. A contrast to what visitors to the island expect to see.


The maroon color of our t-shirts was chosen by the late Carola Ashford, the gardens first Project Manager, simply because it was her favorite color. With a gift for color combination, she chose well as the maroon blended perfectly with the yellow and purple.

The start of the project was focused on removing vegetation to restore the gardens; so the wording on the shirts was worded ‘Alcatraz Garden Restoration’. The wording has since changed to ‘Gardens of Alcatraz’ to reflect that now there are gardens again to see and enjoy.

While our volunteer t-shirts still must be earned, we now offer a light lavender color version of our t-shirt for purchase in the island’s bookstores and online. The sale of our t-shirt helps to support our preservation work on the island.


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A time capsule?

The late Carola Ashford, the garden’s first Project Manager, described gardening on Alcatraz as ‘garden archeology’. Peeling back the layers of overgrowth from years of neglect would always reveal artifacts – forgotten items from the prison days. As we approach our tenth year, we are still finding items. But not all of our findings are artifacts from long ago.

This past week, while weeding

Barbara pointing out the location of the bottle. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

around the metal detector at the base of the recreation yard steps, Barbara, discovered a message in a bottle!


The crew of volunteers and I all gathered around, we all wondered what could be inside.


Prying open the Boylan Bottle Works Root Beer bottle (luckily one of the gardeners travels with a bottle opener), we teased out some moist papers. We speculated it was a time capsule or perhaps a million dollars left to care for the gardens. We were a bit off with our guesses; but the contents of the bottle did make us smile.


The volunteers gathering around to see what is inside. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Dated April 26th, 2011 -the bottle held the message ‘I love you. Let’s find this and laugh’. The note also had a big imprint of lipstick lips. We all did laugh at the find and it was fun to think that a visitor had left this behind for someone to find one day.


The message in the bottle. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The bottle also contained a BART ticket, a business card from Millennium, a vegetarian restaurant in San Francisco, and napkins from Extreme Pizza. Perhaps the bottle held the best memories from the person’s trip to San Francisco?


The bottle and its contents. Photo by Shelagh Firtz

Whatever the reason for leaving the bottle, it was exciting to find.

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Spending the Night

Staying the night in a prison is probably one thing that most people would rather do without. But when the prison is Alcatraz, suddenly, the opportunity is much more appealing. The garden volunteers spent the night on the Rock as an appreciation for all their hard work. The group was treated to an evening BBQ on the dock, live music in the hospital, a chance to see a foggy sunset and breakfast the next morning with a view of the city. Not bad for a prison experience.


Music in the hospital. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

Volunteers and their guests arrived on afternoon boats and showed their guest around the gardens they help care for. The group was also treated to a performance in the hospital wing while dinner was being prepared by garden volunteer, Beth.


Gathering on the dock for dinner, some arriving visitors for the night program assumed the BBQ was for them as well and joined the line of hungry volunteers. The interlopers were quickly weeded out and sent on their way up the hill to Prison.


Fine dining on the Rock. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

The fog crept in and swallowed up any chance of seeing a sunset. No one seemed to mind though, as the night tours offered by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy night program were fascinating. Island visitors were escorted off the island around 9pm, leaving the island to the gardeners and a ranger.


The race was on to find the best cell to

Volunteers in D-block. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

sleep in. Most people chose the tiers of D-Block in the isolation wing, while others preferred the larger cells of the hospital. A couple brave volunteers thought the operation room was ideal.

Settling into the Operating Room for the night. Photy courtesy of Lynne Buckner.


Corny finding a cell. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

Aside from a few noisy seagulls, everyone slept pretty well. The beds were oddly comfortable and the cells were snug and cozy. There was no sleeping in as we had to be out of the cells before the first boat of visitors arrived the next morning. I’m sure visitors would have been surprised to see people fast asleep!


The fog lifted enough for a lighthouse tour to offer a 360 degree view of the island while breakfast was enjoyed outside of the Administration Offices.


A sad farewell was said to one of volunteers and docents, Kristen, as she was embarking on

The lighthouse on a foggy night. Photo by Lynne Buckner.

new adventures by moving across the country. As a token, we gave her a pen that was engraved with Alcatraz Prison Regulation #41-Correspondence: “Inmates may correspond only with the approved correspondents. You will refrain from discussing other inmates or institutional affairs. Violent or abusive letters will not be mailed.” Hopefully she knows that everyone on the island is on her approved list.


Thanks to all of the garden volunteers for a fun night and for fantastic gardens!

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Celebrating the 4th of July

Working on Alcatraz, either as a staff member or as a volunteer has many perks. Obviously, one of the best perks is being on the island for special events; and what better event could there be then to watch the 4th of July fireworks from the city’s best vantage point?


On the fourth, staff and volunteers, along with friends and family were invited to celebrate the 236th birthday of the United States. We arrived on the island as the day visitors were departing. Just to be on the island with a fraction of the normal visitor numbers was a treat; there is typically 5000 visitors a day.


The afternoon fog held off despite strong winds pushing the marine layer over the Marin Headlands. People speculated if we would be able to even see the fireworks, as in years past, we’ve only been able to hear booms from the fireworks. Gathered on the dock, everyone enjoyed their ‘bring your own picnic’ before heading off on various ranger led tours of the island. I finally had the opportunity to tag along on Ranger Al’s talk about Escape Attempts. Working in the gardens along the main road, I have caught portions of his talk since I started working on the island in 2006, but I had never heard the whole presentation. Al did not disappoint the crowd and he had all of us pondering the meaning of Escape. Did an inmate technically escape if he managed to get to the water? What about off the island if only to be recaptured? Or what if the escape ended in death?  Likely not the cheeriest topic to celebrate a National holiday, but it made me understand a bit more the release the gardens provided to the inmate gardeners.


Ranger Al had us pondering the meaning of ‘escape’. Shelagh Fritz photo.

We had a chance to tour the island and show off the gardens to our friends. In a way, it was a bit like being in grade school and having your parents come to your classroom to see your drawings. All of the visitors could see why Alcatraz is special to us.


As we gathered by the lighthouse, boats began to anchor in the Bay and we could hear the music coming from Fisherman’s Wharf. Again, I was reminded of Ranger Al’s talk – the real punishment of Alcatraz was having the city so close but yet out of reach. Hearing the laughter and music of people celebrating must have reached the ears of the inmates locked up in their cells.


The best view in the city to watch the fireworks. Photo by Beth Lichter.

The fireworks were spectacular and we could see both sets of fireworks in unison. There were even heart-shaped and smiley face fireworks.


San Francisco is truly an amazing city, and the volunteers and staff that are dedicated to our parks are even more amazing.

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Worm Farming on Alcatraz

As part of our commitment to being as sustainable as possible, we have a worm bin on the island. One of my volunteers, Dick Miner, started it two years ago and has since become nicknamed the Worm Man of Alcatraz.

Dick outlines in a few easy steps how you can make your own worm bin.

To start a worm farm one needs a simple container. We use a Tupperware container in which small holes have been drilled for air exchange. Fill the bottom half with bedding, we use coconut coir, this is the fibrous material of the coconut. The bedding should be moist but not wet. Coconut coir can be purchased in many good nurseries.  In Marin, it’s the nurseries the specialize  in native plants that carry coir and red wigglers.  


Sturdy container for the bin with small holes. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Next, ordering the worms. One should start with maybe a 1/2 pound of red wigglers. The worms can be ordered through worm farming websites, Uncle Jim’s Worm Farm which is in Pennsylvania is where we ordered ours from.  Another web site that is good is Worm’s Wrangler in the Northwest.  

The worms will eat most kitchen scraps, just not meat or dairy products.  They love coffee grounds, melons, and salad greens. They are picky eaters when it comes to onions, garlic, or peppers. The worms on Alcatraz are fed once a week. Dick buries the veggies in one corner of the box; and next week the next corner and so on. The worms will migrate to wherever the food is. It is vital not to let the box dry out or they will try to leave, making a very slow getaway.


Food scraps (dinner for the worms). Photo by Shelagh Fritz

The bedding should be changed when the box gets too wet.  Harvesting castings is a bit tedious.  Dick dumps out the bedding on a tarp and separates the worms from the coir one at a time.  The worms then go into new bedding.  The castings are used in our compost tea, which is sprayed on our roses.

Worm Poop. Photo by Shelagh Fritz


The worm bin stays in the greenhouse under a bench and does not get too hot, the worms can stay outside but they do need to be brought inside for chilly winter evenings.

Visitors on the free docent tour are shown into the greenhouse and get a chance to see the worm bin and if they are lucky, will have Dick as their guide.


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method cleans up


This week was a turning point in spring Blooming Chasmanthe with the Golden Gate Bridge in view. Photo by Shelagh Fritzwith the Chasmanthe floribunda being cut back on the west road terraces. After blooming in February, the leaves of this South African bulb is left is photosynthesize to store energy in the bulb to bloom next spring. Like other bulbs, such as tulips and daffodils, the leaves should be left until they die back completely; however, on the west road terraces, the chasmanthe is cut back just as the tips are starting to turn yellow.

Why do we cut the foliage when they are still green?

The leaf stalks are cut to the ground and which are then cut into 4” pieces by volunteer crews. The pieces will be composted and break down much faster if they are cut when they are still green. The moisture content in the leaves helps them break down much quicker than if they were brown and dry. We have experimented in past years with letting the foliage die back completely, then cutting it back and feeding it through our chipper. Not only were the dried leaves hard to cut with hand pruners; but the dried leaves wrapped around the chipper blades; which then lead to hours taking the chipper apart and sharpening the blades.

A load of cut chasmanthe ready for the compost pile. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

This week, method – a company that is dedicated to producing earth and people friendly cleaning products – volunteered in the gardens and helped with this yearly task. A fun bunch, the group enjoyed views of the Golden Gate Bridge while they worked.

One lucky employee, Jonathan McCarren even found a very rusty trowel with the wooden handle rotted away. Jonathan’s find will be passed onto the National Park Service archives and his name will become part of the records. The group speculated what the inmate who last touched it had being doing and why the trowel had been left behind?

Finding a rusty trowel in the gardens. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

Fitting for a cleaning company, they swept the roadway after they were done and left the gardens pristine.

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Gardening for Exercise

Many people in the Bay Area are familiar with the idea of ‘Park Prescriptions’. This is a relatively new idea where doctors write a patient’s prescription to visit a park to improve their health. In much the same way, doctors could prescribe gardening to improve a person’s overall health. Gardening has been proven to increase physical fitness and mental capacity while reducing stress and the chances of dementia. As well, vegetable gardening raises better awareness about healthy eating and increases a person’s connection to their environment.

According to Bay Area Monitor, “relaxation and stress reduction could be one of the best benefits. Given that antidepressants are some of the most commonly prescribed medications, a prescription for some flowers, plants or tomatoes might be a refreshing change. Researchers commonly note the positive mental outlook obtained by those participating in gardening [Source: Wakefield, Lombard, Armstrong]. Another great benefit of gardening is that is gives the body a chance to focus on just the garden and drop away from the stressors of yesterday or tomorrow.” I can certainly testify to this. Weeding is one of my favorite gardening activities, it is something that I could do (and have done) for hours at a time squatting, hunched over in the sun or rain, letting my mind focus on the job at hand; and often, these are the times that I connect more with the gardens.

Pushing loaded wheelbarrows on the island keeps volunteers fit. Photo by Diana LaWithout a doubt, gardening on Alcatraz keeps you fit. For many years, we pushed wheelbarrows up the hills, loaded with supplies. We worked tirelessly removing overgrowth and hauling it to compost piles. Now, years later, we haven’t slowed down at all. For calorie counters, simple gardening jobs like weeding, hoeing, and watering burns on average 225 calories an hour. But measuring a good day’s

Yoga stretches on the hillsides. Photo by Shelagh Fritz

work is impossible to put a number to. On the island, there is a gardening job to suit everyone’s ability – weeding and planting on steep slopes gets in some yoga stretches, while turning the compost pile is equilvelant to lifting weights. Just walking up the main road is the same as walking up a 13 story building – and usually, we forget a tool and have to walk back down to the tool room to get it. I guess our mental capacity for remembering all the tools we need still needs improvement.

Turning the compost pile is the same as lifting weights. Photo by Fergal Moran

Many of my volunteers are of retirement age; but they can easily beat a 20-year-old up the steep switchbacks on Alcatraz. I was recently surprised to learn one of my volunteers that leads docent tours was 80! I guessed his age was closer to late 60s.

For island gardeners, they are getting a double dose of healthy goodness – gardening in a National Park! Spring is the perfect time for new beginnings. I encourage you to start your own garden, even a small pot of herbs on a window sill. I’m sure you will notice a difference in your daily life. For the inmate gardeners, I’m positive that they valued the pleasures of gardening. They were the lucky ones that found an escape outside of the prison walls, finding solace in the beauty they created. Elliot Michener, inmate #578, gave a testimony stating “the hillside provided a refuge from disturbances of the prison, the work a release, and it became an obsession. This one thing I would do well…If we are all our own jailers, and prisoners of our traits, then I am grateful for my introduction to the spade and trowel, the seed and the spray can. They have given me a lasting interest in creativity.” Suzanne Shimek, a volunteer with the Lick-Wilmerding High School even said last week that she “had a meditative and peaceful time sifting soil and sorting worms”.

Gardening is such a simple act, that gives so much.

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